“Let us go, then, to Bethlehem to see this thing that has taken place,
It’s highly doubtful whether most people in our Post-Christian world have any real appreciation of the great mystery celebrated at Christmas. Certainly the growing mass of people in the western world who either no longer believe in God or no longer believe that Jesus is God, yet continue to celebrate the “ holiday” with trees and gifts and such, don’t have a clue. As the Psalmist says, “for the work of your hands I shout with joy. O Lord, how great are your works! How deep are your designs! The foolish man cannot know this and the fool cannot understand.” Indeed for the foolish unbeliever, Christmas is just an excuse for a party or family get together, and while that’s fine, in the end it’s a rather hollow festivity and certainly nothing like the kind of festivity found among true Christian believers.
For Christian faith, however, Christmas is not simply a memorial celebration of the birth of a great religious personage but the birth of a whole new world. That is part of what non-believers just don’t get. A whole new world has been born with the birth of this one child. It is a world that originates from that child Whom Christians recognize as the Eternal Son of God who has become part of our human family and history as a true Son of Man. When the first man was created, the whole of this world was changed in a fundamental way. It was no longer a world without any freedom or higher intelligence present and altering it. It was now a human world, a place that had a destiny beyond the merely physical laws that governed it. It now had a destiny that is caught up in, part of, the destiny of this new rational creature called Adam, man.
Now a new Adam is born into this world, Who is infinitely superior to that first Adam, and that changes everything once again. Not only man but the whole world, indeed the whole creation has a destiny in Him. This New Adam not only redeems the old Adam and his offspring and brings them Eternal Life. He redeems the world of that old Adam and will one day transform it into something wholly new, not just restore its old paradisiacal form, but elevate it to become a permanent part of His Kingdom, the Kingdom of Heaven, where Heaven and Earth become united in some mysterious fashion.
And if this destiny of man and his world are wonderful and awe filled, how much more wonderful and awe filling is the truth that this child born in Bethlehem is in truth God Himself Who becomes man and enters human history to make all this possible. This child is himself an offspring of Adam, a true member of our human race, a Son of Man, but He is so very much more. He is at once the child of Mary and the Eternal Son of God the Father. How strange, and sad, therefore, when you hear people say that they love Jesus and love Christmas, but they just can’t bring themselves to believe that He is truly God made man. They really miss the whole point of this celebration, and the true joy.
Now the Shepherds did not know He was God, but they were filled with joy just hear the good news from the Angels, that He was for them “a savior has been born for you who is Christ and Lord. They were joyful simply because he is to be their Savior, and He is their Savior because he is Christ the Lord, their Lord and their savior, who had come from God for their sake.
But we know so much more about Him than they did, and our joy should be proportionately far greater than theirs because we know that this child is Lord because He is truly God who has been made flesh to dwell among us. How can we take this in, the astounding truth that God who created the Universe did not just raise up a great religious figure to save us, and did not just remain in Himself and save us as it were from outside human history. He has become and remains a part of it, a part of us, our human race, so we could now only be saved by Him but could become a part of Him, a participant in his mystery as the God man, become, that is a true son or daughter of God, in Him, and share His destiny.
It is truly amazing how Christmas continues to be celebrated in countries that once were largely Christian but are no longer Christian in any real sense. Again it must be understood that the child honored at Christmas in these secularized, formerly Christian families and societies is not truly believed in by the vast majority of the people who are now only nominally Christian. Indeed, what the Christian faith professes about this child is considered by most secularized westerners to be a kind of lovely fairy tale or myth made up by Christians, a beautiful story, but really just a story meant for children to believe, like Santa Claus or the tooth fairy. It’s still a lovely holiday tale, a myth that supports a feeling of good will and gift giving, and paid holidays, but that’s about it.
But for Christians with genuine faith, what we are celebrating today is the most important historical event ever, the greatest event that seals the goodness of life and the goodness of this world. Today, God was born into this world, and the world received its creator and redeemer in the child born of Mary. This event obviously did not immediately and totally change this world, as we see from the child’s own poverty stricken birth, but it did change the whole course of history and the essential contours of human existence.
Human history is no longer an open question as to how it will end, for good or for evil; it will definitely end in the triumph of goodness, the complete victory of this child over all evil. For not only will He raise all the dead and establish those who believe in him in His glory, but He will also use his divine power to transform the whole universe into a new creation, completely devoid of any trace of evil.
But it is still a great mystery for us believers as to why He chose to do all this and lower himself in this way when he definitely could have accomplished all this without the Incarnation. I can think of two partial answers that help me appreciate the mystery without resolving it. That will have to wait for His answer.
First, He did it, became flesh, so we could love him more. We can’t see God operating as God, but we can see a human infant, a young child growing up, a young man who meets an untimely end in this world. He draws us by human heart strings to love Him more than we could if he had not become visible as a man. The infant draws us to love; so does the child in the Temple, so does the man on the Cross. In this way, He made out gratitude more possible and out love greater.
Secondly, he did it to give us confidence that our humanity would become capable of the things promised to us. He was weary lie us, tired as an infant, exhausted by his mission, crushed by the Cross he carried for us. He was ridiculed like us at times, he was scorned, badly misunderstood, even by his own, and was in the world’s eyes a lost cause. And yet his victory, he promised is ours and can be ours in spite of our weakness, our exhaustion, even our sins, because he carried them to the Cross for us. And He rose from the dead, so that men might see the total victory that he promised for us. It would have been all too easy for us just to give up by saying after all we are not God; but we know he did all this as man, a man like us in all things but sin.
And our joy is even greater because our faith assures us that while the total victory is in Heaven, the new world, our victory over sin and death begins for us now if only we believe in Him. That is what I meant by the assertion that he changed the world, and for us the essential contours of human existence. Jesus Christ infinitely enlarged the existential possibilities for every one of us, for he opened the way to heaven and our sharing in the very life and happiness of God. Human existence is no longer limited to the possibility of finding some limited and transient happiness in this world. No, the horizon of man has literally been expanded to infinity; God has become human, so that man can truly become divine, can truly share in the divine, intra-Trinitarian, mutual love and knowledge of God. And this tremendous new life begins here, now, in this world, where we can share God’s self-knowledge by the gift of faith and the Trinity’s mutual love by the gift of charity. The saints are now the measure of of the possibilities of our humanity already in this world, and we have been given the grace to become what they are. Listen once more to St. Paul writing to Timothy:
He saved us through the bath of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit,
whom he richly poured out on us through Jesus Christ our savior,
so that we might be justified by his grace and become heirs in hope of eternal life.
In Paul’s words, we hear the meaning of Christmas in a nutshell: he was born that we might be reborn and made totally new by the grace of His Holy Spirit, a grace that makes us truly Godly men and makes us “heirs in hope of Eternal Life.” That is the true gift and joy of Christmas. May Jesus Christ be praised – now and forever, Amen.